Firstly, good heavens the excitement of posting a John Dickson Carr review without then tagging it OOP — Polygon Books have Hag’s Nook (1933), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), and She Died a Lady (1943) in their stable, and the British Library and Otto Penzler have added more, with more to come. And after last week’s brilliant and baffling no-footprints murder in a lonely corner of England, and with my broadly chronological reading of Carr’s work bringing She Died a Lady back into my orbit, the stars seemed to be aligning on a reassessment of this, probably the most consistent contender for Best Carr Novel of All Time.
In my memory, I first read this in a post-Constant Suicides daze, around which time I’d also consumed Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942) and so was in raptures at how seemingly cut-and-dried events could, with a simple flourish, suddenly be painted in all the Elysian hues of the finest ingenuity. And so when Rita Wainwright and Barry Sullivan left footprints in the mud all the way to the Lovers’ Leap at the rear of the property the comely Rita shared with her older husband Alec…and when those footprints did not return but instead took them right over the edge into the 70 foot drop down a near-vertical cliff face and into the waves below, well, none could be more cut-and-dried. So for those bodies to turn up not merely dashed on the rocks and drowned but also shot at close enough range to leaved powder burns on the corpses…frankly, sensation.
With, er, several years and a goodly few more impossible crime novels under my belt, it’s a delight to be able to say that most of this still stands up. The 1940s had already seen Carr produce masterpieces like Constant Suicides and The Seat of the Scornful (1941), and Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and He Who Whispers (1946) waited in the wings — and those are just the accepted classics from a six year stretch of Carr at his peak. There is a thoroughly earned, blithe, easy confidence to Carr’s writing here that’s enriched by the sepulchral threat of World War Two in both reality and fiction, with madness and death apt to explode around author, readers, and characters all lending an undeniably germane air to proceedings:
I am writing this in the middle of November, with a black wind flapping at the windows, and black death on the land. In September the bombers came to London. Only a few nights ago, first with Coventry and then Birmingham, they began their attack on our provincial cities. Bristol or Plymouth, they say, will be next.
Uncommonly for Carr, this is narrated not by a Bright Young Thing with romance soon to be foisted on their horizon — the Inevitable GAD Love Story happens very much off-page — but by elderly (which, from this era, means 65 years old) local GP Dr. Luke Croxley, lending a more reasoned and mature air to speculation where the like of The Unicorn Murders (1935) relied equally heavily on the impetuousness of youth. His inability to be swayed by the fulsome charms of Molly Grange, or of any other attractive young woman to feature in proceedings, leads to him reflecting blankly on much of what he sees and hears, and we are party to it along with him and will no doubt overlook the salient points just as comprehensively. And, every so often, he’s able to chill you just a little bit into the bargain…
What does a murderer look like, when he comes up silently behind his victim?
What had eluded my memory somewhat was just how darned layered events here are. At his most devious, and he comes within a wafer of that here, Carr was a master at piling up inconsequential events to staggering effect when finally unleashing their collective impact. Chapter 14 here, in which implications and indications are unfurled time and again so that we might see events as the Henry ‘the Old Man’ Merrivale sees them, might be one of the most devastating pieces of writing in Carr’s distinguished career, with rugs pulled and realisations crashing down all about us. And it feels all the more heartbreaking because of how slyly and gracefully you’ve been invited to know these people, to see them as people. Sure, there’s no-one here of quite Fay Seaton’s complexity, but when your heart breaks — and break it surely must, at the end of chapter 19 if nowhere else — goddamn doesn’t it ever hurt.
With a more seasoned eye, aspects of the ending do come the hell out of nowhere, and the guilty party is conveniently identified by more luck than judgement, which brings this back a half-step from the likes of The Reader is Warned (1939) at the pinnacle of H.M.’s achievements. I’m also not entirely sure I quite buy the explanation of the footprints second time around, though I still love it in principle, and a certain action of H.M.’s to, let’s say, obfuscate the Absolute Key Clue seems to serve no purpose beyond making the reader hope that we’ll get another Crooked Hinge (1938)-esque final chapter re-reversal and, well, we don’t. I do, however, very much enjoy how he dismisses all flummery with trick footprints, however, and thus this can join with The White Priory Murders (1934) to canonically banish People Going Over Their Footprints and other such chicanery from being admissible solutions (though, in true style, Paul Halter has since found a wrinkle that allows it and remains valid — and, don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler for The Gold Watch (2019); you’ll need to look elsewhere).
To have this available to the general public is a wonderful state of affairs, since it showcases so much of what Carr did better than most and with decidedly fewer flaws. No, the broad comedy of H.M.’s wheelchair shenanigans aren’t funny, but they also take up very little space and the second instance, especially, captures the man at his most…H.M.-y. For intelligent, ingenious plotting and scheming it’s pretty hard to top, and gives most modern pretenders a run for their money. And you can just walk into Waterstones and buy it off the shelf — how exciting! So do, go now if you haven’t already read this, and let’s hope that a Carr resurgence is (finally) on the way…
Ben @ The Green Capsule: The puzzle is fascinating, yet the solution wasn’t quite fulfilling… The story lacks the atmosphere and urgency of other works, but is still an enjoyable read. The reveal of the killer is uniquely done and I really liked how the novel closed out.
Les @ Classic Mysteries: She Died a Lady features Sir Henry Merrivale, the character about whom Carr wrote when using the pen name “Carter Dickson.” As readers of Carter Dickson’s mysteries know, Merrivale was brilliant in his ability to explain impossible crimes – and wildly eccentric and often quite funny in almost every other way. In She Died a Lady, H.M., as he is known, is visiting an artist who lives nearby and who is painting H.M.’s portrait. There are some very funny scenes, particularly one involving Sir Henry, a motorized wheelchair, and what seems to be all the dogs in the village – but the overall tone of the book is anything but funny. Can those impossible murders be explained? It was almost enough to fool Sir Henry Merrivale. Almost.
Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora: As various theories are expounded on how the murder might have been committed, eventually we reach a clever and satisfying conclusion, topped by an epilogue, crucially not written by Dr Croxley, which reveals a wholly unexpected culprit. With its clever story, thankfully avoiding the need to add a gratuitous extra murder to the proceedings, as even Dame Agatha was wont to do at times, and emphasis on character and the recreation of an idyllic little village disrupted by murder and Merrivale whizzing around in a motorised wheelchair after hurting his toe, this makes for a completely satisfying mystery.